The first time I met Xaba he appeared like an angel and put cheap wine to my lips.
It was the first day that I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I had gotten kicked out of my last friend’s house the night before because of some drunken incident that I couldn’t remember, something having to do with a broken television. I’d wandered the streets with a half bottle of White Eagle vodka and ended up in the alleyway between Industrial Boulevard and 7th Street. By eight the next morning, there was nothing left to drink and the shakes were already coming on strong. Like I said, I had nowhere else to go; my parents wouldn’t have anything to do with me, I had no friends left, and no relatives that would take me in. I just sat there. I watched the sun rise over the concrete monoliths that loomed fiercely over both sides of me. People in the alley woke up and shuffled around as morning passed. None of them paid any attention to me. The sky was cloudy and gray and I saw a pale yellow where the sun was trying to break through. I heard the city wake up in the autumn chill. The sounds of car horns and engines became increasingly frequent as the morning dragged on. And then an odd face came over me.
“Get away,” I mumbled.
The face smiled. “Here,” it said, as it lowered down a bottle of wine to my lips.
The wine tasted like shit but I took a long drink anyway.
“Slowly, my friend,” the voice said.
The wine swam through my veins quickly and I felt better. I took another pull and my shaking hands started to steady.
“One more,” the person said, still looking down at me, “and I brought you these.”
He handed me a ripped pair of faded Levi’s that looked much too large for me, but they were at least clean.
The last sip calmed me down enough to get up and walk over to the other side of the dumpster and change. The pants didn’t fit well, but he said just a moment and went over to the other side of the alley and got me some string. I tied the string around my waist to hold the pants up. I turned to this wingless wine-angel and looked at him. He was tall and wore a black woman’s wig. His cheekbones were pronounced and angled downwards to his mouth that seemed to contain a permanent half-smile. He was wearing mascara, red lipstick, and a black dress that exposed his hairy legs, connected to shin-high black combat boots.
“Thanks for the drink,” I said to him. “I feel like I’ve seen you in something before.”
“I get that a lot,” he said. “And no problem. I’ve been where you are.”
I looked around. The tall, desolate, angular buildings shot up into the cloudy sky. The alley was littered with garbage, cardboard boxes, and people napping in sleeping bags. There were several blue dumpsters, and doors with no handles carved into each of the gray buildings that bordered the alley. Outside of the alley, there were two bars and some warehouses. One of the bars said “Last Stop” over the entrance in neon letters, and sometimes a person would leave the building on the other side of the street and walk in. It was chilly outside, but my leather jacket and the wine warmed me. I looked back over at my savior.
“Xaba,” he said, and held out his hand.
I shook it and told him that I’m Jamison. His combat boots were heeled and he was two or three inches taller than me with them on. He walked away to a sitting area that consisted of a few cardboard boxes and some dirty blankets. When he sat down, he motioned for me to come join him. Not knowing what else to do, I followed.
When I sat down, he handed me the bottle and then leaned his head back on the concrete of the building behind us, closing his eyes. “You can have that. You need it more than me,” Xaba said, his eyes still closed. “I’ll pick up more later.”
I said thanks and took a few big gulps, finally feeling the sickness slither away. “I wasn’t expecting this kind of help here,” I said.
“I like people,” he said.
“I like helping them out. You seemed like you needed help.”
“Well, I appreciate it.”
He was looking over at me. His makeup softened the bones in his face, and it was pleasant to look at. His voice was low and deep.
“Do you consider yourself a guy or a girl?” I asked, and right away I felt stupid because of my bluntness.
Xaba laughed. “Camel tumors. Sleep-Jesus bone paints. Slither chairs. Wrack ‘em down.”
“Sure,” I said. “Absolutely.”
A few people were sitting in a circle in plastic white chairs and talking farther down towards the street. A woman, her face caked in dirt, stroked a skinny tabby cat across the alley from us. Every time wind blew through the alley, newspaper, cans, and paper bags would tumble down like urban tumbleweeds.
“It’s okay,” Xaba said, seeming to sense that I felt stupid. “You really want to know?”
“Actually, I do.”
“Got a minute?”
“I have a feeling I have a lot more than that.”
Xaba reached over for the wine and I gave it to him. He took a sip, swallowed, and shook his head. “I’m a man,” he said. “I got kicked out of my house when I was seventeen years old. I was huffing spray paint frequently at that point. I wandered around from place to place. Sleeping on couches, hanging with different crowds.”
I looked over at Xaba. He was looking straight ahead, smiling at the lady with the cat. She smiled back.
“Once I was fucked up at some house party, I was probably twenty-one then, and I was staring at myself in a bathroom mirror, seeing a person I didn’t know. There was lipstick on the counter. Normal red lipstick. I put it on and it just felt right.”
I nodded, looking over at the gray pigeons that danced around on the edge of a dumpster. I wanted to tell him why I started drinking; I wanted to tell him about the disappointment I always felt directed towards me all my life, and how alcohol erased that, but I didn’t. Nothing came out.
Xaba said, “I like dressing like this. I feel like I know who Xaba is when I dress like this. Also, it helps with my job.”
I didn’t respond. Instead, I fingered the checkmark-shaped scar on the back of my right elbow. The memory of the elbow smashing the glass to my old bedroom in my parent’s house came back to me. Mom screaming. Dad calling the cops. Me mumbling that I just wanted to see if I still had some money stashed under my mattress from a job I had years ago.
“Let’s go get more wine,” Xaba said. “You got any money?”
The memory drifted away and I shook my head.
“I’ll cover you this time. Later on I’ll show you a few places where you can make some money. You can buy the next one,” Xaba said and got up, brushing off the back of his dress.
When we got out on the street, orange and red leaves were falling from the few city trees. One by one they’d drift to the ground until winter came, and where would I be when the snow started to fall?
“Slapstick tragedy tables,” Xaba said. “Tree blades on a severance collage.”
“I don’t know what that means,” I said.
“Gotta spice it up, Jamison. Gotta say something nobody ever did before.”
The streets contained many cars, and I could hear the wind echoing clearly through the steel labyrinth. The gray of the sky had slowly disappeared and the day was bright now. Xaba whistled as we walked and at one point I asked if he was cold and he said a little, but that the cold gives him something to look forward to: warmth. After a few minutes, Xaba pointed up ahead and told me that we were getting close.
“So why’d you help me out back there?” I said. “Really?”
Xaba stopped whistling and looked over at me. “Because you looked really fucked up. You needed help more than anyone in that alley.”
I frowned. I thought of myself as relatively hardened. “Why do you think that?”
“You’re new to this. I can tell just by looking at the others, then looking at you.”
“You don’t know all I’ve been through,” I said quietly.
“I’m not doubting you’re tough. But it’s different out here. When you don’t have a roof over your head, you have to let go of some things.”
I nodded my head. I thought about everything, about not having anywhere else to go. I always thought there’d be somewhere; there was always a backup plan. Mom and Dad stopped taking me in after repeated failed attempts of trying to get sober—the window incident was really the last straw for them. But I wasn’t mad at them. From the time I was 15 to now, 12 years later, I have been nothing but trouble and disappointment for them. They should have cut me off long ago, but an only-child haze must have clouded their vision. My friends were cool for a while, taking me in when they could, until I’d go on a spree and steal or break something; eventually, they all dropped off one by one until there was nobody. I started to laugh.
“What?” Xaba asked.
“Fuckin’ A,” I said.
Xaba smiled. “Fuckin A,” he said.
A large yellow bus passed us, and a few kids waved happily from the small windows. Xaba waved back. The city smelled like metal and exhaust. I could still taste the wine on my lips.
“Cranking soda santy. Drawer and smoke, up up,” Xaba said.
“Lickless star fumes,” I said.
Right outside the liquor store, a black sedan pulled up next to us, almost running over the curb. The passenger window slowly rolled down and a hairy white arm popped out and tapped a pistol on the side of the car.
“Get in, Xaba,” a voice from the car said.
I looked at Xaba and he didn’t look scared.
“I need to go,” he said.
“What the fuck?”
“Don’t,” he said before I could get any further, “I’ll explain later.”
He got in the back of the car and it sped away. I watched the car disappear down the street, finally getting swallowed up by the city. I went in the liquor store and stole two bottles of cheap wine and went back to the same alley and found my spot.
Later, after drinking all day and having slept for a few hours, I woke up and vomited. I had to keep drinking every nine or so hours, otherwise I would get sick. My stomach was constantly rolling like the ocean, and my head felt like it was always in the deep part of the sea, with the glowing, alien creatures.
After grabbing my wine from its hiding spot underneath a dumpster, I took a few sips and threw it back up within a minute. I could feel the warmth in my organs and after a few more sips, my hands were steady and my stomach was calm. I was drinking without rationing, because I knew I had another bottle. It felt nice, because I was used to saving a few sips to keep the sickness away the next morning.
Setting the bottle down for a moment, I looked around. The alley was dim but Last Stop’s neon sign illuminated the street. I could see movement in the alley and hear the muffled rumblings of voices and some moaning. There was a person across from me in the darkness. I could see him on his knees with his hands folded, looking up and whispering words into the sky. He seemed to sense me watching and he looked over and nodded before returning to his prayer. I had overheard his name earlier but couldn’t think of it at the moment. There were other names I had overheard as well, and I was beginning to figure out whom I could interact with, and who was best to avoid, like the old bearded guy who mumbled nonsense throughout the night, and would attack anyone with a yellow screwdriver he carried if they touched him.
I got up from my spot, stretching and yawning, and looked back down at my new home. After I had returned earlier from the liquor store I found a few cardboard boxes in the alley that I stacked on top of each other, as a sort of makeshift mattress. Nina, the lady with the tabby cat, had walked over, introduced herself, and lent me a blanket, saying I’ll need it for when it gets cold. She had walked away before I could thank her. My area was next to a dumpster, and I used the space between the back of the dumpster and a building as a sort of cubbyhole. There, I stored my few possessions: two plain black t-shirts, my leather jacket, one hooded sweatshirt, one cell phone that I carried with me even though it was dead and I had no way of charging it, one broken pocket watch that I had received from my grandpa as a kid, and some duct tape that I had found. I used the duct tape to hide the booze up underneath the dumpster. The alcohol was the shit that I didn’t want to take any chances with.
After looking over my new home, I walked down the alley and saw people sleeping, huddled together or alone. There was a chill in the air, but not enough to penetrate the temporary wine warmth that I felt. I saw two people walk over from Last Call and stop near a dumpster where there wasn’t any wind. One of them sparked a lighter and held it to a glass pipe for a few moments, before handing it off to the next guy. Nina slept quietly with another person spooning her, the cat purring in her arms. It smelled of shit and piss mixed with the dead leaves of autumn.
I walked back to my spot and took a few more sips of wine. I was an alcoholic and a thief. I belonged here.
That sounded familiar.
“Wake up, asshole.”
Fuck. My head was pounding.
“I see you stirring there, Mr. Jamison. Slap up the cartwheels, fashion me a franger, henned in and crying.”
My eyes slowly opened. The sun was shining directly into the alleyway between the two buildings. It must have been early afternoon.
“That’s right, open them eyes.”
I sat up and rubbed away the sleep, relieved to see Xaba. He was a few feet away, wearing a different dress from the previous day, shorter and orange, with a mesh opening in the chest area showing the hair beneath. He was wearing a blonde wig and even heavier makeup. I saw that he had on flip-flops, and he was jogging in place while he looked down at me.
“There’s my favorite fuck up. Wake up, time for a walking lecture.”
“I don’t need a fucking lecture,” I said.
Xaba stopped jogging in place. He looked down at me with a blank look on his face.
“C’mon, I want to show you something.”
I sighed and said one second. I fumbled around underneath the dumpster for the other bottle of wine, as I had finished the previous one the night before. I found it, opened it, and took a few deep gulps.
“Better?” Xaba said.
“You’re going to die if you keep that up.”
Xaba started jogging in place again. His knees made the bottom of his dress hike up his thighs. I leaned back against the hard, cold wall of the building.
“Did you steal that wine from that liquor store?” He asked.
“Maybe,” I said.
“I know you did,” Xaba said. “I help out the owner of that liquor store from time to time. He saw us outside and he saw what you did.”
“Don’t do it again. That guy will kill you if he sees you do it again. He told me himself. If you need booze ask me … Or hell, go be honest with him and he’ll probably help you out.”
“What, he’ll just give me some booze?”
“If you’re a friend of mine he will.”
“Who were those people last night?” I stood up, swaying slightly. My head was pounding.
“People I owe money to,” Xaba said. “Let’s leave it at that.”
We started walking through the city streets. There were tall buildings, a smog-filled sky, and, once we walked far enough from our alley, people dressed professionally and walking hurriedly. Along the way, Xaba showed me different places a homeless person could use for food, shelter, and going to the bathroom. He seemed to know this part of the city quite well.
“And that place there,” Xaba said during our journey, while pointing to a plain brown building that had the simple words “Food Market” over the door, “the owner will let you use the bathroom and sometimes give you something to eat. All you’ll have to do is sweep or mop or do a small favor for him. Good man.”
I nodded, making a mental note of the location. I hadn’t really thought about surviving yet. Technically, I had been homeless for a long time, but I’d always had a roof over my head. This wasn’t going to be easy.
Xaba and I stood out when compared to the well-dressed men and women walking down the sidewalks, me with my greasy hair, leather jacket, and too-large jeans held up with a string, and Xaba with his orange dress and sandals. When I’d catch someone looking at us, I noticed that they looked at Xaba with amusement, but they looked at me with disgust, or pity. Xaba didn’t seem to notice the looks in the slightest, and continued talking excitedly, using his hands to point out different places of interest.
At one point, we were at an intersection, waiting to cross over into an area that smelled strongly of teriyaki and had a large selection of ethnic restaurants. Xaba was telling me about places to panhandle, if it came down to that, and I was listening grimly as a large red truck pulled up. The window rolled down and the man inside threw a large fountain drink at Xaba. It landed on his shoulder and splashed down over his dress and onto the ground.
“Faggots,” the men in the car yelled at us as they started driving away.
I was shocked. I just stood there silently for a few moments. Then, Xaba burst out laughing. He pointed at the red truck and laughed loudly at them. As Xaba was laughing, he started shaking his hips and doing a little jig, continuing to laugh, as the men’s triumphant expressions turned to confusion. As the truck disappeared out of sight, Xaba stopped laughing and dancing and continued like nothing had happened. We started to cross the street.
“There is a good Korean restaurant down here,” Xaba said. “Real fancy shit.”
“Xaba,” I said, “that truck —”
“We’d never be able to eat there. Too expensive. But it’s fancy, so they throw out food that’s almost fresh, right into the dumpster in back. I come here all the time if I’m hungry and got no money.”
“Xaba,” I said loudly.
He looked over at me. We were across the street and walking into the restaurant area. The autumn sun shone brightly overhead.
“Those fucking bastards,” I said. “Your dress is soaked.”
“It’s just a dress. It’s not like I’m going to a wedding or something.”
“I know, but aren’t you pissed?”
“Being angry is too much work. I used to get angry at shit like that, but it was too exhausting.”
People were flooding past now, some of them chattering away on cellphones, all of them moving quickly. I assumed it was lunch hour.
“Mantle on a kiss bringer,” Xaba said.
Later that night another car pulled up for Xaba, and once again Xaba went zooming away into the night. The next day he had a black eye, and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get him to talk about it.
Over the next few weeks I started settling into the rhythm of living out there. It actually wasn’t that bad, although I know others suffered a lot more than me. I helped unload boxes at the liquor store from time to time, and although the guy was at first still salty about me robbing him, he eventually became a great contact. I could come in and work for whenever or however long I wanted and he would pay me in cash, enough for me to eat and stay drunk. Xaba tried to bring up the subject of me quitting from time to time, but I wouldn’t have it. This was the way things were going to be. That was that. And although I felt sickness like pale arms wrap around my neck sometimes, and although I vomited often and my headaches rattled persistently against my bones, I felt calm knowing that I had made my decision to keep drinking.
The autumn sun was weakening more and more every day. Xaba and I were both wrapped in our individual blankets, shivering and sitting next to each other in tattered blue lawn chairs that we had salvaged from the dumpster. I smiled at Xaba and we sat in silence for a few moments. On nights like these when we weren’t talking or drinking or eating or laughing we’d just sit in our alleyway and stare up at the sky. We were doing just this when I decided to test my luck.
“Xaba, who are those people in the cars with the guns?” I asked.
“Couple of guys I work for. Say I don’t bring in enough money.”
“They look like they’re gonna fuck you up.”
“No, they’re amateurs. They just pick me up, threaten me, sometimes hit me, but that’s it. I tell them I’m trying and that’s that. Don’t worry Jamison.”
Xaba saw that I looked worried. “Listen,” he said, “these guys are lowly, wannabe gangsters. They wont kill me because, although I don’t bring in the most money, I bring in money the most consistently. They don’t want to lose that. If it makes you feel better, they’ve been laying off me a little.”
I didn’t feel relieved at all. I got up and stretched and then sat back down, putting the blanket back over me.
“What about the money you make?” I adjusted my blanket, wrapping it tighter around me.
Xaba looked over, surprised. “What about it?”
“Well, what do you do with it? Where does it go?”
Xaba looked away and yawned. He waited a few seconds before speaking again. “Well, I only see a few men and women really. Regulars. People I work for say I need to see more. But I don’t know. I’m getting old. It’s hard getting new customers at this age.”
I heard some shouts and saw a couple of guys getting thrown out of Last Call by a large bouncer. They flipped the place off and then walked away.
“So to answer your question, I don’t really make much. What I do make I usually give away to people who need it more than me. I get by all right without much money. Shit complicates things.”
I shifted in my chair, fingering my elbow scar again, and nodded my head.
“Plus,” Xaba said, pointing up towards the sky, “look at that fuckin’ moon.”
“It’s a good moon,” I said.
Xaba got out of his chair and looked straight up. He started to bark. And then he started to howl like a wolf, louder and louder, he just stood there howling at the moon. I got up and joined him, and soon we were both howling as loud as we could. We howled away, and others joined in, until there were at least seven of us in the alley howling up towards heaven.
A few hours later, Xaba and I were still awake, still wrapped in our blankets. The night was cold and crisp. I could smell the city in the air; old and rotting food in the dumpsters, a rusty engine smell from so many passing cars, smoke from industrial chimneys that the wind would sometimes blow down to the street, and a pungent smell of decay that drifted from the scattered puddles of liquid that always seemed to accumulate in the alleyway. For some reason, I noticed all the smells more than ever at that moment, and it made my stomach push all the shit I had consumed recently up towards my throat.
“That was a good howl earlier,” Xaba said.
“I feel sick.”
“Everyone needs a good howl from time to time.”
“Fuck,” I said, standing up.
Before I could move anywhere, my stomach pushed everything out of me and the vomit splattered down on my shoes. I sat back down again, giving up on movement.
“You okay?” Xaba said.
I leaned my head over the side of my chair and it came again. Liquid and food forced its way out of my mouth. The sickness came in waves. Every time I got everything out, another wave would come, and before long I was out of breath and my eyes were watering. Xaba came over and started to rub my back. After two more waves, the food and liquids were out and I was just expelling spit and stomach acid. My throat was on fire. Finally, the sickness passed and my stomach was calm again. Xaba sat back down in his chair. I wiped my mouth off with my shirt and took a sip off a small bottle of rum that I kept in my pants pocket. After the sip, I looked over at Xaba. His eyes were narrowed.
“Jamison, you really need to quit that shit, my man.”
I shook my head. “Just don’t right now.”
“Listen, I’m not one to judge, kid. I’ve had many addictions. But I always stopped before it did to me what it’s doing to you now. You can quit. I can help.”
I’d never seen Xaba look so serious. He reached over and put his hand on my arm. I shook it off. “Xaba, seriously. Shut up.”
“I haven’t known you for that long, but I care about your ass. I don’t like to see this shit happening to you.”
I got up and started pacing back and forth. My mouth still tasted like vomit so I took another sip of rum.
Xaba got up and put his hands on both of my arms, preventing me from moving. He stood directly in front of me and looked into my eyes. “I can’t see you go like this,” he said.
I pushed him off of me and he stumbled back a few feet. “Just leave me alone.”
Xaba made to come back and grab me again but he stopped. He put his hands on his hips and stared at me. After a minute, he shook his head. “Fine. Die a fucking miserable drunk fucking loser. Have fun with that, kid,” he said, and started to walk out of the alley.
“I will,” I said under my breath, watching him exit the alley and turn the corner.
I woke up later that night with a feeling of hopelessness. I looked around and noticed that Xaba was back, sleeping under blankets across from me. The night had gotten colder and I wrapped myself in a blanket and sat up, leaning back against the wall behind me. I stared at Xaba for what felt like an hour, thinking.
Finally, I got up and walked over to him. “Xaba, wake up,” I said.
After I gave him a few shakes, he woke up confused, with his eyelids still half closed. “A harlot waltzing,” he said.
“Are you awake?”
He sat up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. After a minute, he looked at me. “Jamison what’s up? Are you okay?”
“One week,” I said.
“One week. Give me one week and after that I’ll quit drinking for good.” I sat down across from him.
Xaba’s eyes opened completely and he scratched his head. “Why one week?”
“I don’t know. That’s just what I decided. Maybe it gives me time to get it all out or something.”
“Are you serious about this?” Xaba was searching my face.
“We’ll see what happens after a week, but I’m going to believe you for now.”
I put my hands on his shoulder, looking him in the eyes. “You just gotta let me drink without judgments for this week. Then, I promise I’ll be done. I give you permission to do whatever it takes to get me to stop.”
“You mean this, don’t you?”
“Well shit, this is good news,” Xaba said, standing up and reaching down to help me up as well. “Can’t go back to sleep now. Let’s go for a walk. There’s a twenty-four-hour diner that I haven’t shown you yet. Best shitty coffee you’ll ever have.”
“Ah, this is the life,” Xaba said two days later as we shared some sandwiches and a bottle of wine. There was a bright sun shining down from a blue sky, and we enjoyed the fleeting warmth as we sat in our chairs eating and drinking. I even felt clean, for the first time in a while. I had swept and mopped the floors of Food Market earlier that day and the owner allowed me to use the bathroom. I washed my face and body in the sink and it felt amazing to get rid of all the grime that had built up over the past few days.
“Crank-shaft sift-notes,” Xaba said as he finished off his sandwich.
I finished mine as well and took a glug of wine. “Dishwashing uterus gloves,” I said.
“When you were a kid, what did you wanna be when you got older?”
I smiled and licked my lips and passed the bottle over to him. My stomach was warm.
There were only a few other people in the alley today. Most of them had gone out for walks or to look for jobs, but a few remained, either sleeping or talking like us.
“I wanted to be an airplane pilot,” I said. “I wanted to fly those big jumbo jets. Be the person that brought people around the world, the person people relied on. I was a kid and I saw a pilot once at the airport. He just looked so proud and important, with his blue blazer and blue pilot hat, carrying his suitcase and nodding his head and smiling at everyone who passed by.”
Xaba smiled. He passed me back the bottle and started scratching his legs that popped out from underneath his dress. “I wanted to be a cranky old waitress,” he said.
“Yep. When I was a kid, my family and I used to always go to this small diner. There was this old waitress there. She was always cranky to everyone except me. She’d smile and be polite to me. Every time I saw her I wanted to be just like her.”
“Well let’s go then,” I said. “Let’s go stop at the job office and grab some applications. I’ll grab the airline pilot application and you can grab the cranky old waitress application.”
“Deal,” he said.
We got up and started walking, the bottle dangling from my hand.
A few nights later I woke up in my sleeping bag to the sound of muffled yells. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes in the chilly night, and as they adjusted I could see that it was coming from where Xaba usually slept. I stood up immediately. There were three large men, each about six feet tall and wearing what looked like black t-shirts and blue jeans. One of them was standing to the side of Xaba, kicking him in the ribs. Another man was on his knees punching Xaba in the face, and from where I stood, I could see Xaba’s nose sliding slowly to the left and blood starting to cake his face. The last man was standing and talking to Xaba as he received the beating. “We told you Xaba, we fucking told you,” was the last thing I heard him say before I rushed, enraged, towards them. Now I was never big on fighting but the anger that filled my bloodstream that night was thick and heavy. I tackled the man who was standing up. We both fell to the ground and I could see the stunned surprise in his face. After, I immediately got up and uppercut the man who was on his knees. The crack in my knuckles felt so good. I was about to turn to the man kicking Xaba in the ribs, feeling energized and overly confident, when the man I had tackled got up and shoved me against the dumpster. I fell face first and I could feel my bottom lip get caught in between my teeth and a shred of skin was torn out as salty, warm blood filled my mouth. I was dazed but still about to get up when the man who was kicking Xaba in the ribs hissed, “This doesn’t concern you,” before punching me in the face.
I blacked out.
Hospitals are so goddamn bright, I thought, as I woke up a few days later. Panic started to take charge as I took in my surroundings. A gray sky outside my window, sterile white hospital walls, a television in the corner with The Price is Right playing. There was a doctor looking down at me, smiling. An older black man, maybe forty or fifty years old.
“I need a drink,” was the first thing I said, “I get sick if I don’t —”
“You’re okay,” the doctor said, smiling, “you’ve been here a bit over 72 hours, conscious off and on. We helped you through the withdrawals, and your injuries are minor. But we do need to discuss a few things.”
“Xaba,” I said, “where’s Xaba.”
“Just relax for now okay?”
“No. Where the fuck is Xaba?”
The doctor relented, his smile lessening slightly. “Xaba is severely injured, but he’ll pull through.”
I leaned up out of the hospital bed.
“Jamison, you need to —” the doctor said.
“I need a drink,” I said. “Where’s Xaba?”
“You can’t see him right now, why don’t you relax?”
I started taking the IVs out of my hand. “I need to go,” I said.
“Jamison, no,” the doctor said.
“Can I leave? Am I under arrest?”
The doctor looked down. “No, but you need to stay. You are not well.”
I walked out the door and into the hallway.
“You will die if you keep drinking like you were,” the doctor said. His voice lowered when he said this, but it was stern. I felt like I was being scolded.
I paused for a second and looked back. The doctor’s eyebrows were narrowed and he squinted at me with his hands on his hips. I stared back at him, thinking. I wasn’t scared of death, no; I was scared of being sober. I was scared of what was going to happen two days from now when I was supposed to quit.
“Where is Xaba?” I asked, one last time.
The doctor took a deep breath and shook his head. “Room 309,” he said.
I left the room and started walking down the bright hallways. Doctors and nurses stopped and stared at me, confused, but nobody attempted to slow me down. The place was so white. I walked hurriedly and finally found the elevator, where I pressed the glowing third floor button, and was thrust out into another hallway with a ding and the sliding of elevator doors. The first thing I noticed was two security guards, one standing at the reception desk talking to a nurse, and one at the end of the hall, by the exit to the stairs. I found room 309, which was closer to the reception desk, and I was about to walk in when a nurse walked out. She looked up at me, surprised.
“I need to see Xaba,” I said.
The surprise was quickly erased, and her face became expressionless. “Xaba is resting,” she said.
“Please, just let me look at him.”
The nurse studied my face.
“I need to —”
“You’ll have to come back later.” She was still staring directly into my eyes.
I looked over my shoulder and saw that the security guard by the reception desk was studying us. I was almost about to dodge the nurse anyway, when I looked past her and saw the tiny window to Xaba’s door. Inside, I could barely make out Xaba’s figure, wrapped in blankets and with white bandages on his face. Seeing him in there, knowing he was alive, made me feel relieved enough.
I walked away, down the elevator again and through the hospital halls, until I found the exit. At that point, I realized I was still wearing my hospital gown. Fuck it, I thought, Xaba would have found this funny. I got out onto the sidewalk in front of the hospital and the air was chilly. It must have been morning. People walked up and down the sidewalk, holding coffees and looking tired. Some stared at me and walked in wide circles to avoid me.
I was about to start moving again, but then I hesitated. 72 hours. That’s the longest I’ve been sober in twelve years. I felt crazy. My brain was a mess and my thoughts were scattered. I wanted so badly to just go to the liquor store, but instead I turned around and stared up at the small hospital.
I didn’t know what else to do, so I howled. Quietly and slowly, at first, and then increasingly louder and faster. I cupped my hands around my mouth, and looking upwards, I howled for my mom and dad. I howled for all of America, with its beautiful tall mansions and skyscrapers, and I howled for dark alleyways and my homeless friends, and for the kid I used to know in the fourth grade that threw sand in my eyes during recess. I howled for my checkmark-shaped scar, and for men in business suits who were on their way to work, and I howled for prostitutes and for bored suburban mothers, but most of all I howled for Xaba. I howled for Xaba, my friend. I howled until I couldn’t howl anymore.
Finally, I was out of breath. I stopped. People were standing around staring at me. One woman was eyeing me while talking on her cellphone.
And then he appeared, bandages and all, outlined above me in a hospital window, perhaps saving me for the second time in my life.
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